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The eyes truly have it

Simon Rattle took over the Berlin Philharmonic, took on the politicians, and really, he couldn't be happier.

November 16, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Anyone who thinks there has been a lot of hoopla for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall should have been in Berlin on Sept. 7 last year, the day Simon Rattle led his first concert as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Britain's most popular conductor had achieved the most prestigious -- and some would say most important -- job in classical music. Music insiders in London referred to it as the coronation.

Berlin itself felt under the spell of Rattle's smile. And in a sense it was, what with the beaming conductor's photo plastered on billboards and bus stops. One newspaper dubbed him "Sunny Sir Simon," and the media couldn't get enough of him. That first night, the Philharmonie, the yellow landmark in which the orchestra performs, glowed like a beacon, so bathed was it in TV lights.

Next weekend, then, hoopla meets hoopla, as Rattle makes his first appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic in both Los Angeles and Disney Hall. After all, we knew him when. He made his Hollywood Bowl debut in 1976 on tour with the London Youth Orchestra. Ernest Fleischmann was so impressed by the 20-year-old conductor from Liverpool that he immediately asked him back to appear with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "I was scared stiff," Rattle later admitted.

In the 1980s, Rattle served as principal guest conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic. The city watched him grow from precocious to great. That didn't happen overnight, as legend has it. But it did happen.

Now 47 and on top of the world, Rattle has turned gray, but prematurely so, and his silver curls take little away from his enthusiastic boyish nature. One of the first things he says as he arrives to meet for an interview at a small hotel near Lincoln Center is, "I hope you don't mind if I have to leave at 7:30. It's my only chance to give my Aunt Billie a big hug. She's going to the theater."

Aunt Billie -- actually his wife, Candace Allen, is her niece -- was in the original Broadway production of Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town" and is the widow of jazz great Luther Henderson.

Rattle came to America for a couple of days late last month to visit his children by an earlier marriage, who live in San Francisco; to have dinner with the composer John Adams, whom he has long championed and from whom he has commissioned a new opera to be premiered by his orchestra in 2006; and to meet with the press in New York in preparation for his Berlin Philharmonic American tour, which includes three concerts at Carnegie Hall as well as stops in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In conversation, Rattle sounds like someone who can't believe his luck.

How's Berlin? "Heaven. Hard work but absolutely heaven."

Has the initially warm welcome cooled at all after a year? "I was expecting a lot more resistance, but they're just curious about everything. It's been extraordinary."

Culture shock? "Less than I thought. The wonderful thing is that they've been up for everything. It just progresses and progresses."

These are, of course, the kind of things a conductor says, but not necessarily with Rattle's tone of glee or the sparkle in his eyes. He laughs as he notes, "Look, they just chose, one after another, the two conductors in the world who conduct with their eyes most open after this conductor who conducted with his eyes shut."

In one sentence, Rattle encapsulated what the Berlin Philharmonic was, what it has gone through in the post-wall years, what it wants to become and just how radical his appointment was.

Under Herbert von Karajan, the autocratic, ex-Nazi, fast-living, race car-driving, airplane-piloting music director from 1955 to 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic became, in nearly everyone's estimation, not only the greatest orchestra in the world but the greatest orchestra the world had ever known. Whatever listeners thought about Karajan's slickness, the pretentious pietism of his conducting with his eyes closed or his scary quest for perfection, he inspired phenomenal playing.

After Karajan, the orchestra had a dozen rocky years under the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, who does indeed conduct with his eyes and who attempted to open the players' eyes to a broader repertory and a more varied sound. He hired younger, more flexible musicians. And although Rattle first conducted the orchestra 15 years ago, it was during the Abbado reign that he became something of a regular in Berlin.

Unlike the ever-friendly Rattle, Abbado can be a distant personality. Although he is well known for his liberal politics and lack of formality, he and the band did not easily find a common wavelength -- "We call him Planet Claudio," Rattle fondly jokes. At one point, Abbado resigned and had to be coaxed back. It took his suffering a life-threatening stomach cancer for him and the orchestra to truly come to care for each other.

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